Having just finished Trollope’s entire Palliser series on audiobook — six novels of over 30 hours each of listening pleasure — I needed a palate cleanser. You’d think I’d want to stay as far away from being read to as possible. But I’ve gotten so in the habit. And another audiobook is the perfect companion to a needed barn cleanup. That’s how I found myself using my free monthly Audible credit to download Neil Young’s autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace. Not that I’m in any way a huge Neil Young fan. But I’m not a Keith Richard’s fan either and I thoroughly enjoyed his book.
Well, color me a fan now. At least a fan of his writing and quirky personality. I say his writing because there can’t possibly have been a ghost writer involved with this project. If there were, his activities were wisely confined to turning the tape recorder on and off. The voice that comes through is of an obsessive, eclectic, eccentric, cranky old guy who’s done a heap of living and still has lots more to learn, do and say. You can’t ghostwrite that! You probably can’t even write it. And the eery impression of listening to this book was of sitting by a fire late at night and having Neil Young (or the admirable narrator Keith Carradine who “acts” Neil Young) riff on various events in his life.
I will caution you that Neil Young doesn’t have a chronological sense of time. You would probably be advised to read at least the Wikipedia entry on Neil Young so you have the broad outline of his story. Neil Young’s life seems to be a long river, with a lot of eddying pools, where various unrelated incidents — decades apart — are discussed together as if they are all part of one cosmic interconnected and predetermined whole. And perhaps they are. So characters pop up, like Joni Mitchell or Silicon Valley software billionaire Marc Benioff, but with no explanation how he met them. Then he’s reaching back a few decades to some other event that he eventually ties in loosely with his original point. Sort of.
If you think this is annoying — I didn’t find it so. Although The Washington Post and the New York Times are not as forgiving. But, you know, critics. Why would you want a great original like Neil Young to abide by silly conventions like story arc, timelines and narrative consistency. That’s for Snooki’s ghostwriter. Me, I’ll treat this book as a Jazz riff or crazy Beat poetry. I can see myself dipping in and out of chapters from time to time even after I’ve finished the whole book. Besides, buried in the anecdotes are various pearls of wisdom that go beyond the music, the obsession with model trains, cars and clean technology. Here’s one that’s, I think, the single best writing advice I’ve come across:
“I never had to try to write. I learned to be ready to write when an idea came into my head, whether it was in school or wherever. I learned to drop everything and pay attention to the song I was hearing. The more I did that, the more songs I heard.”
As someone who feeds the blog beast, I can attest that I have sixteen wonderful post ideas a day. Most of them get lost in the shuffle. It’s only when I pull out my Moleskin and jot down the thought right then and there — or stop and work the idea through in my head — that I hold on to that idea. So sign me up to the the Neil Young School of Creative Writing.
Another revelation from this book — which is the same gleaned from Keith Richards’ autobiography — is how incredibly hard very talented people used to have to work to be famous. Before the days when you could just post up a video on YouTube that goes viral or join a highly-rated reality show, most famous people had talent, tenacity and worked so hard that they became the best at what they did. I’m loving the passages where Neil talks about his early days of honing his craft, trying to pull together an even tighter band, write even better and more original songs, working six days a week in second rate clubs just for the experience. It’s clear, he’s never lost that drive. If you look at his career, every time he’s on the cusp of the sort of fame where he can sit back and cruise, he gets involved in another challenge — whether it’s saving Lionel Trains, mastering a new customizing car job or writing this book. Neil Young, like Rust, Never Sleeps.
As you can guess, this is most definitely NOT your standard Rock Star biography — “Then I joined this band, then I slept with this famous person, then I wrote this incredible song”. For one thing, Neil seems, if I can again quote his songs, to have A Heart of Gold. He never uses the book to slam someone from his past or make himself look better — even when he’s discussing his troubled relationship with actress Carrie Snodgress. He talks about the times he was rejected for contracts and admits he probably wasn’t good enough at that point or not quite ready. He even has a sweet shout out to his original high school sweetheart. Awww.
But then Neil’s Zen attitude can be understood — he’s had more misfortune and setbacks than any six rockers. Yet he emerges, endures and takes them in stride. Some of his most touching passages are how his profoundly handicapped son, Ben, born a quadriplegic and now confined to eating through a feeding tube, rides in a place of honor in the tour bus as a much loved “spiritual leader”. Of course, even those with just a passing acquaintance with the Neil Young legend know about his Bridge School Concert that endows a wonderful school for the profoundly handicapped. In typical humble Neil fashion, he gives all credit for the idea to his wife, Pegi, and the artists, like Bruce Springsteen, who first agreed to participate and put the event on the map.
Even if you don’t know or care about Neil Young’s musical or philantrophic legacy, his chapters about loving classic cars, customizing buses with skilled woodworking and his forays into green technology are equally fascinating. And anyone who’s trying to customize a Lincoln Continental into an electric car or retrofits a bus with wooden wings gets our vote around here. (Neil explains these obsessions as: “That’s what happens when you give a hippie too much money.”)
Yup. We’re loving Neil Young around these parts. That barn clean up project got stalled when I had to just sit in front of the wood stove and savor the chapters of this book. Even the terriers looked attentively at the iPod and listened intently to Keith Carradine channeling Neil. We’re thinking we should invite him and his family out to the ranch.
I’ve asked John the Baptist if he knows him — as he knows most of Northern California’s counter culture. Sure enough, John once did some welding on one of Neil’s cars back in his La Honda hippie days.
I know Neil’s Broken Arrow Ranch is ten times larger than Two Terrier Vineyards, but if he needs a little more storage space for his cars he can park some near the old Foremost Dairy truck, the Ranchero or one of the Hot Rods. Our car crazy friends have been bringing their vehicles up here for storage and we could move a woodpile or two and make room for Neil’s. We think Neil would also get a kick out of a whittling session with John the Baptist. And we’ve built a stone amphitheater on the property, so Neil, bring your guitars and you and Andy can jam. I’ll wear a plaid shirt in your honor.
Yes, there’s no praise too high for a man who wrote a love song to his Pontiac. Love ya, Neil. Long may you run.